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The council of the future

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2018

Georgina Maratheftis, programme manager for local government at techUK, paints a picture of what the council of the future could look like – and just how we might get there.

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that local government continues to face financial constraints whilst still having to deliver lots of services and meet rising expectations. It’s a common narrative when talking about the state of local government.

However, some councils are taking this challenge head-on and seeing the opportunity to reimagine local service delivery and what the ‘council of the future’ will look like. Many councils are adopting a digital-first mindset to do things differently, not just in improving efficiencies and making savings but, more importantly, in improving outcomes for citizens.

Digital is more than just technology: it embodies a collaborative and user-centric approach that brings us to do things both smarter and differently.

The council of the future will be a digital council that’s more connected and integrated with citizens, communities and businesses, and reaping the benefits by using digital to reimagine service delivery that meets users’ needs. In adopting a smarter, more holistic vision of the citizen and place, communities will be motivated to come together with shared values and skills and drive a better quality of life for all.

Local data will be utilised, confidently breaking down silos and creating new pathways for delivery of priority services and economic growth. Data will be at the heart of decision-making, enabling predictive services and a shift to early intervention to manage demand better, thus tackling cross-cutting challenges in a cost-effective and productive way.

Digital-first mindset

Digital is no longer just the responsibility of IT – it’s everyone’s. A key component in creating the environment to enable successful transformation, before even looking at the technology, is culture and leadership. Councils need to understand the digital components within their organisation at the executive level so that the leadership can recognise how and where public services can be transformed.

Digital leadership must be formalised in terms of its authority to instigate change within the organisation. As such, techUK recently launched ‘Council of the future: A digital guide for councillors,’ which provides advice for newly elected and incumbent councillors on how to confidently begin digitally-led conversations with peers and officers to engender change and build capacity across the organisation.

By grasping the digital agenda and having a digital-first mindset, councillors can be at the forefront of spearheading the transformation of the area into a ‘smart community,’ where citizens are empowered to shape services and create the places where they want to live. Places such as Essex, Camden and Hull already have a dedicated portfolio for digital at the cabinet level.

Starting with the problem

It should never be tech for tech’s sake, but rather starting with the problem and seeing what tech solution fits best. A council of the future will take a ‘problem-led’ procurement approach like the government has taken in the GovTech Catalyst Fund.

This fund supports public-sector organisations to find innovative solutions to operational service and policy delivery challenges. It is open to all of the public sector, and it was great to see three councils submit challenges in the first round – tackling loneliness and managing road traffic congestion.

Emerging technologies

We live in a more digitised society – citizens expect to interact with their local public services as they do in their social lives. To be clear, the adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) does not mean displacing a team or service, but complementing it to truly be user-centric. Chatbots, for example, can provide a good customer experience by enabling citizens to engage with a local public service out of hours.

Aylesbury Vale District Council has introduced chatbots to boost customer service. The service learns from previous council residents’ conversations and can improve council response time to resident queries on services, such as council tax and bin collection.

AI can also enable a more data-driven council and make services more predictive. Hackney Council, for example, has launched the Early Help Predictive System, which uses AI to identify families that may benefit from extra support from the government. Its goal is to provide support to families that need them as early as possible to prevent the need for high-cost and high-risk services later on.

Smarter working

The council of the future should also be an organisation that allows employees to work collaboratively and flexibly. London Borough of Barking and Dagenham adopted a cloud-first approach to support smarter working and workforce mobility.  As a result, the council has reduced its operating costs by 25%, while also driving a 35% reduction in IT support costs. Not only can cloud help councils meet their efficiency savings, but it supports collaboration and mobility by breaking down barriers to traditional public service reform.

Getting to the council of the future

It’s an exciting time for local government innovation. Councils must continue to share best practice and case studies on the adoption of new technologies to accelerate the pace of transformation.

Central government has also put in place the resources to aid this in the form of a local digital collaboration unit at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Alongside the establishment of this new collaboration unit was the launch of the Local Digital Declaration, a shared ambition for the future of local public services written by a collective of local authorities, sector bodies and government departments. It outlines a shared ambition for improved collaboration and creating the conditions needed for the next generation of local public services.

Things are moving in the right direction for digital local government. Though central government has a role to support and guide when it comes to disseminating best practice and enabling collaboration, ultimately each council will have their own vision of the future of local public services.

By putting in place the right digital leadership, engaging with the market to understand the art of the possible and collaborating effectively, councils will be able to achieve that vision. It won’t be easy, but nothing easy is worth doing.


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